Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Grandfather

I woke this morning thinking about my paternal grandfather--the one I didn't know. Well, I did know him if you count that picture of me sitting on his knee, aged about one. Here he is:

a distinguished-looking man, and a man of no small distinction. I have always felt sad to have been deprived of his presence in my life. Grandfathers are important to their grandchildren, and it saddens me, too, now that I am myself a grandfather, to be so far from my own three grandchildren, who live in England. Henry William Clothier was an electrical engineer, an inventor of systems that made high voltage switchgear safe for industrial use. His Wikipedia biography includes this version of a story I heard frequently from my father as a child:

In those early days, the electrical manufacturers of England held exhibitions of their products at Olympia. The highest voltage available was 20,000 volts, and even 11,000 volts was then a high and awe-inspiring potential. There were a number of high-voltage switch-panels on show, with white porcelain insulators and red, white and blue painted bus-bars; and their manufacturers gloried at hanging notices on these panels “20,000 volts – DANGER”. But Clothier, with his protective metal-clad switchgear in place, hung up on his panel “20,000 volts – NO DANGER”.

My father's mother died when he was just a lad--an early teenager. His father died years later, in 1938, at what was then a great distance, in New Zealand. I have no recollection of him, other than that single photo of me as a baby sitting with my older sister on his knee. From this and other pictures, I imagine him gentlemanly, kind, perhaps a little formal in that old British way. He was also, as the Wikipedia biography notes, a brilliant and creative man:

Those that worked closely with him were impressed by Clothier's ability to convert a germ of an idea into freehand sketch design which could readily be made into a working drawing. His colleagues can confirm that by the aid of these sketches it was often only a question of hours between the first conception of the idea and the completion of the manufactured article.

And a generous one:

Socially and communally he always took an active interest in the life of the district. He was at one time a member of the congregation of St. Peters. His energy was unbounded and his enthusiasm for doing good to others extended far beyond his professional life.

I wish I had known him, and feel the poorer for that loss. I know that my father, who lived on into his eighties, was deeply wounded by his mother's early death, and that he regarded his father with a kind of awe and perhaps a sense that he could never quite live up to his example. I also know that I owe my years in private boarding schools--during which I received an excellent education but failed utterly to grow up--to the relatively small financial benefit my grandfather managed to reap from his inventions.

It's not clear to me why Grandfather popped into my head this morning. I opened up a little space and he just arrived. Perhaps it's a matter of age. I'm much aware of the reach of generations through time, from my grandfather down through my father to myself, and on down to my sons, my daughter, and my grandchildren. On the masculine side--and I will confess that this has a particular significance to me, as a man, even in this post-feminist age--that's Henry, Harry, Peter, Matthew and Jason, Joe... Not a preference, I hasten to add! It's just something in the male gut!


mandt said...

"that he regarded his father with a kind of awe and perhaps a sense that he could never quite live up to his example" An observation, classic to the generations. But, I discovered to my great joy and my father's that 'knowing' him was of far greater value than 'living up to."

khengsiong said...

My maternal grandparents died before my parents tied the knot. My paternal grandfather passed away when I was a kid, but I don't recall if I had any picture taken with him.

My paternal grandmother is still alive. She has very bad memory, and often fails to recognize the people around her. Somehow, she always recognize me when I visit her.

You grandkids may be far away, but modern technologies help you to connect with them.

Well, this is the last day of 2009. I wish you a very happy new year!